Intro : The issue at stake is whether this high denomination deal and its obvious strategic implications will have any ramifications for the improving Sino-Indian relationship especially when Prime Minister Modi is shortly heading towards Beijing on a high profile return visit to China.
In the recently concluded visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to Pakistan, China has signed a reported 46 Billion USD deal for development of infrastructure in Pakistan territory to enable the operationalisation of one of the arteries of the New Silk Route.
The proposed 1,400 Km Kashgar (Xinjiang) to Gwadar (Balochistan) alignment, also termed the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), promises to give China access to the Indian Ocean and to the Middle East through a combination of roads, railway lines and energy pipelines. A second agreement is for modernisation of the Karachi to Lahore super way. On the face of it all this was not unexpected especially after China demonstrated its ‘railway power’ through the Yixinou train last December, after it travelled 14,000 Km from Chinese city of Yiwu and the Spanish capital Madrid.
China, encapsulated the rapid expansion of its railway network across Eurasia and the key role that railroads are playing in its New Silk Route strategy. The issue at stake is whether this high denomination deal and its obvious strategic implications will have any ramifications for the improving Sino-Indian relationship especially when Prime Minister Modi is shortly heading towards Beijing on a high profile return visit to China.
What is the basis of China’s ambitious project(s)? The reasons are relatively simple to assess. Firstly, it is a part of China’s multiple efforts to expand its commercial interests which dwell largely on manufacture and exports. Secondly, for long it has been criticised for its focus on the eastern seaboard which has added to imbalance in the internal economic development; taking the footprint of development into Western and Northern China is an imperative. Infrastructure development towards Russia (Siberia) and Europe partially caters to this. However, it is the infrastructure development towards the direction of the Indian Ocean and Middle East which will pay the richest strategic dividends. China needs energy from just about anywhere; Caucasus, Siberia and the Middle East. From the latter transportation of energy could thus far be only by means of the ocean route, all the way to the eastern seaboard through the vulnerable waters of the Indian Ocean via the even more dangerous Malacca Straits which can be blocked off and access denied by a conglomerate of navies inimical to China’s interests.
Recall Deng Xiao Ping’s (one of the first generation of Chinese Communist Party leaders) famous ‘four modernisations’: Hisgoal in 1976 was to set China back on the course of economic development that had been badly interrupted during the final years of Mao’s leadership. Deng’s rallying cry became the “Four Modernizations,” articulated by Zhou Enlai in 1975, which entailed the development of industry, agriculture, defense, and science and technology. In it, the modernisation of the armed forces was the last priority because it was education, agriculture and technology which occupied the first three. This was Deng’s only mistake. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy was even lower in priority; no one foresaw how this would affect China’s strategic interests when it became an economic power horse. The PLA Navy may not be in a position to defend China’s sea lines of communications (SLOCs) against the combined naval might of the US, Japan, Australia, India and countries of South East Asia for another thirty years because sea power involves building infrastructure and vessels which requires time that is clearly not on China’s hands. To circumvent this China has been planning for long the construction of infrastructure to transport its energy needs from the Middle East to Western China through Pakistan following the broad alignment of the Karakoram Highway, through Gilgit-Baltistan (GB), Pakistan occupied Jammu-Kashmir (PoJK), rest of Pakistan and connecting up with the southern port of Gwadar in Balochistan.
The contract to build Gwadar’s port was secured some years ago. This alignment will in due course cater for linkages to the mineral rich areas of Afghanistan where China is seeking high profile stakes. The infrastructure will ultimately have the triad of roads, railways and pipelines; the accessibility of Gwadar from the Persian Gulf will thus be fully exploited.
How does all this impinge on India and its emerging relationship with China so assiduously being crafted by Prime Minister Modi.
The first and most direct observation is the fact that mainland South Asia is virtually short circuited by China’s ambitious project. With a vast network of infrastructure to the south west, west and north, China has virtually excluded India from being a part of the economic connectivity of the future. Denied access through Pakistan, to Central Asia, India has not even been able to build on the strength of relationships with former Soviet republics in the Central Asian Republics (CARs) region although there was much promise in 1992.
Further south, China is going ahead with its Maritime Silk Route (MSR) which is an adjunct and caters for the future when its naval power will match that of potential adversaries, while also nurturing relationships with the nations of the Indian Ocean Rim.
China has made oblique offers to India to join this project without any concrete proposals and Indian strategic thinkers while being apprehensive have evinced much interest in obtaining an insight into China’s real intent. Either way, in the emerging environment of uncertainty about China’s intentions India needs to feel apprehensive about its virtual isolation. It also needs to engage constantly with other stakeholders on their perceptions about mutual interests and threats in the region.
Pakistan is obviously in seventh heaven after a series of high profile international engagements which have brought much cheer from the direction of Russia, China and the US. After a gloomy 2014 it has much to be positive about and politically is regaining confidence after predictions of its potential implosion are slowly being put to rest.
In the midst of all this, and in fact in its wake, our PM is visiting China and seeking to build on the achievements of the visit of President Xi Jinping to India in 2014. While mutual trade and economic interests would be high on the charter, the PM’s team would obviously be looking at two things which need to be brought up with their counterparts. First, the emotive aspect of China’s intent of construction of infrastructure in Indian Territory in Gilgit-Baltistan and PoJK, currently under occupation of Pakistan. Second, the status of J&K cannot be altered through third parties and China does not have the locus standi to side track India on this a second time: the first being the 5,000 plus square Km of territory illegally ceded by Pakistan to China. Notwithstanding the thorny aspect of this issue India can ill afford to ignore it and will need to strongly register this with the Chinese. Knowing PM Modi’s penchant for placing facts on the table there is no doubt that he will bring this up in his ‘charcha’ with the Chinese President too.
India will also need to caution the Chinese on the potential influence of radical Islam on the restive Xinjiang region in Western China. Once linkages open up it is not long before social impact can be felt. China is sensitive about this and no one can speak to its leaders on the creation of an inclusive model for minorities than India. There is no doubt that China too was observing PM Modi’s recent visits to the IOR nations. These are the very nations with whom China is seeking its MSR relationship. Boldness in seeking China’s perception about India’s role in the MSR and the mutual payoffs may result in greater transparency and possibly result in identification of areas of cooperation to allay each other’s fears. For example the Bangladesh–India–Myanmar–China corridor (BIMC) has been under proposal for some time but there has been a lack of clarity about the alignment and the payoffs. India has yet to respond on this due to apprehensions on the real intent.
The realist that our PM is, there is no doubt that he will intimate to his Chinese hosts the apprehensions India feels about the increasing footprint of China’s ambitious projects around its periphery. That this should not hurt our strategic long term interests or the growing economic relationship with China is something that the PM’s strategic team will have to convey unequivocally to its Chinese counterparts. There is enough strategic space to allow both nations to pursue their interests. An imbalance in ambitions always impinges on the other’s interests. Who is better than Prime Minister Modi to convey this message through his strong personal linkage with the Chinese President? It also calls for an immediate and committed revisit to the entire issue of Chabahar port on Iran’s southern seaboard and staking India’s claims to partnering Iran for access to the strategic CARs region and Afghanistan. Potentially, while Pakistan cannot be expected to cooperate with India for access to these areas the possibility of exploiting portions of the New Silk Route from this direction remains a distinct possibility for India. This too needs to be ideated with the Chinese hosts.
Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd) (The writer is the former General Officer Commanding of the strategic Srinagar based 15 Corps)